The author of this article by the way is one of the professors in my university who I often see in the student cafeteria. He writes for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
By Michael Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
I WAS in Cebu last weekend and it was there where I realized how Cebuanos were really smarting about Gloria Diaz's alleged anti-Cebuano remarks.
I certainly don't want to add fuel to the fire, and I totally agree with Diaz's claims that she was quoted out of context, but the whole controversy reflects how sensitive language issues can be. Remember all this was triggered by still another beauty queen, Venus Raj, using the words "major, major" when she was replying to a question in the pageant and how she was criticized for such "bad English."
We Filipinos can be too critical of ourselves. I'll dare say that in these beauty pageants lapses in English (whether in diction, grammar or syntax) may actually be seen as quaint, adding to the international flavor. Using an interpreter, too, would not necessarily be seen as demeaning; in fact, it could be an act of patriotism, a way of saying, as many contestants do, "Listen to me, in my own mother language." The furor over "major, major" actually tells us about our lack of pride in our own languages, including Filipino English.
Let's look now at the Cebuanos' furor. If Cebuanos reacted so negatively, it is because for many years now, a so-called Cebuano accent, which is really vowels being interchangeable ("e" and "i" and "o" and "u")has been the subject of jokes.
Yet if you listen hard enough to people speaking other Filipino languages, including Tagalog-based Filipino, you will find that many people also interchange the vowels. The fact is that "original" Tagalog, like Cebuano and most other languages in the Philippines, are three-vowel systems. Spanish and American colonialism added the other vowels and today, the official national language, Filipino, recognizes the wider range of vowels as well as consonants like "f," which can be quite challenging to many Filipinos.
The problem is that Cebuanos are singled out for ridicule because of class snobbery. Many domestic helpers are presumed to be "Bisaya," which is equated to being Cebuano, when the reality is that poverty has driven women from all over the Philippines to become helpers. Some of the poorest regions in the country are in fact Eastern Visayas (the Waray area) and Bicol, which is not even a part of the Visayas. But when people from outside the Visayas hear vowels being mixed up, they presume it's a "Bisaya," "Bisaya" now meaning "lower class."
Note how Ilonggo, which is also a Visayan language, does not suffer from such class connotations. In fact, many people will say they're charmed by Ilonggo, even if the speaker also interchanges vowels. The reason isn't just because Ilonggo has such a musical or lilting tone, but because when you hear an Ilonggo accent, you imagine a wealthy hacendero, never mind that there are in fact many very poor Ilonggos.
Our reactions to other people's languages basically reflect the quality of cross-cultural relationships we have. When jokes are made about the confusion over "l" and "r" of the Chinese and Japanese, it reflects simmering resentments against them, especially in terms of business and economics
If I might get back now to Cebuanos and Visayans in general, my advice, admittedly unsolicited, is not to get mad but to get even. Assert a bit of "Bisdak" (Bisaya Dako or Great Bisaya) pride. Remind people that Cebuanos, not just the rich but the middle class, often have a better command of English than Tagalogs. Remember there was (and still is) strong Cebuano resentment of Tagalog being picked as the national language. So when speaking to Tagalogs, many will use English almost as a way of saying "I will not use your language. . ." with the subtext, "And let me check how good your English is," given that English remains a prestige language in the country.
Let's not forget too the country's premiere English creative writing training program is not at the University of the Philippines but at Silliman University in Dumaguete, another Cebuano area. For many years, American professors ran the summer training workshops. Today they're more likely to be run by Filipino writers, but with a mastery of English that can surpass that of Americans.
It's also interesting how Americans in the Philippines will talk about how charmed they are by our local accents, including the "Bisaya", when we speakEnglish, but then complain about the "atrocious" accent of Filipino-Americans. Here, there are both class and racial biases at work. When they complain about a Filipino-American accent, they're actually referring to lower-class Filipino-Americans, who have picked up African-American English slang, diction, grammar and syntax. So it's okay if you break the grammar rules speaking "Harneo English" (Ateneo English) but not if you sound African-American.
It's time, too, that Bisdak pride move beyond mastery of English and into showing off the richness of local languages. So what if there are missing vowels? The Visayan languages offer much more in elegance and lyricism. I first learned Cebuano through songs, and noticed right away that while Tagalog kundimans were always sad, pining away with longing and supplication ("buksan mo ang bintana"âopen the window!), Cebuano songs were more of declarations of love and all the wondrous feelings that came with that love.
Bisdak pride should also mean setting the pace in other cultural domains. Note, for example, how Cebu and adjoining areas are the new Mecca for interior designers, mainly in search of the best furniture. It's not accidental; there's a Cebuano, or Bisaya, aesthetic that's at once cosmopolitan (combining Spanish Old World charm with the boldness of the 21st century) and yet uses local materials in the most fascinating combinations. Through the years, I've actually found Manila-based designers imitating Cebu, but not quite achieving the high standards.
It's not accidental that there's such a Visayan artistic eye. It comes from history, from the natural environment (only in Cebu can you access the mountains and the sea within a few minutes of each other) and yes, from the language.
Who knows? We just might see the day when people will actually be imitating the Bisaya accent because it connotes not just style and class, but a whole way of looking at life, with gusto and with elan.